Microsoft and Partners Hope to Create a Time Capsule… On the Moon!

Time capsules are a fun and time-honored way to preserve pieces of the past. In most cases, they include photographs, mementos and other items of personal value, things that give future generations a sense of what life was like in the past. But what if we intend to preserve the memories and experiences of an entire species for thousands of years? What would we choose to squirrel away then, and where would be place it?

That’s precisely what researchers from the Molecular Information Systems Lab at the University of Washington (UW) and Microsoft had in mind when they announced their #MemoriesInDNA project. This project invites people to submit photos that will be encoded in DNA and stored for millennia. And thanks to a new partnership with the Arch Mission Foundation, this capsule will be sent to the Moon in 2020!

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Musk Gives an Update on When a Mars Colony Could be Built

Elon Musk is well-known for his ability to create a media sensation. Scarcely a week goes by that the founder of SpaceX and Tesla doesn’t have an announcement or update to make – often via his social media outlet of choice, twitter. And as a major figure in the NewSpace industry, anything he says is guaranteed to elicit reactions (both critical and hopeful) from the space community and general public.

Just last week (on Monday, Sept. 17th), he revealed new information about the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR)  and who its first passenger would be when it conducts its first lunar mission (which is planned for 2023). And on Friday (Sept. 21st), Musk shared some updated plans on when a SpaceX Martian colony could be established. According to the tweet he posted, his company could build a base on Mars (Mars Base Alpha) as early as 2028.

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Sunspot Solar Observatory has been Shut Down by the FBI and Nobody’s Saying Why

The Dunn Solar Telescope at the Sunspot Solar Observatory. The observatory was shut down and all staff vacated due to security reasons. Image: Sunspot Solar Observatory.

Update: Sept. 18th.

The mystery surrounding the closure of the Sunspot Solar Observatory has been (mostly) cleared up. After being closed and vacated on Sept. 6th due to an unspecified security threat, the facility is now open, and will resume normal scientific activities next week.

In a statement, Shari Lifson, spokesperson for the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), the body that operates the Sunspot Observatory, said that the facility was closed as a “precautionary measure.”

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Was This Huge River Delta on Mars the Place Where its Oceans Finally Disappeared?

For some time, scientists have known that Mars was once a much warmer and wetter environment than it is today. However, between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago, its atmosphere was slowly stripped away, which turned the surface into the cold and desiccated place we know today. Even after multiple missions have confirmed the presence of ancient lake beds and rivers, there are still unanswered questions about how much water Mars once had.

One of the most important unanswered questions is whether or not large seas or an ocean ever existed in the northern lowlands. According to a new study by an international team of scientists, the Hypanis Valles ancient river system is actually the remains of a river delta. The presence of this geological feature is an indication that this river system once emptied into an ancient Martian sea in Mars’ northern hemisphere.

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Construction on the Orion Capsule is Done. Next it’ll be Sent to Florida for Final Assembly

In recent years, NASA has been busy developing the technology and components that will allow astronauts to return to the Moon and conduct the first crewed mission to Mars. These include the Space Launch System (SLS), which will be the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V (which brought the Apollo astronauts to the Moon), and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).

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Clearly a Fan. Jeff Bezos Himself Announced that Amazon was Picking up The Expanse

At Comic-Con 2015, fans of space opera and science fiction were treated to their first glimpse of The Expanse, the miniseries adaptation of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck’s novels. Needless to say, the reaction was magnificent, and is perhaps best up by IO9’s Lauren Davis, who penned a review of the trailer titled, “The Expanse Is the Show We’ve Been Wanting Since Battlestar Galactica.

It was therefore a bit of a blow when recently, the Syfy network announced that the third season (which is currently airing) would be the show’s last. Reaction to the news was swift, prompting fans to mount multiple campaigns to have the show picked up by Netflix, Amazon Prime, or another video streaming service. And on Friday, May 25th, Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon and Blue Origin) obliged them.

The announcement was made at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles Friday night. Bezos was attending the conference to receive the prestigious Gerard K. O’Neill Memorial Award for Space Settlement Advocacy, thanks to his advancement of commercial space exploration through his company, Blue Origin.

The award was conferred by O’Neill’s widow, Tasha O’Neill. In the midst of laying out his company’s vision for the future of space exploration, which included colonies in space, he announced that the science fiction show was being picked up by Amazon Prime, Amazon’s subscription service that offers access to music, videos and other media. As Bezos said, to general applause:

“I was talking to the cast half an hour ago, before the break for dinner started. I was telling them that we are working hard at Amazon to save The Expanse but it wasn’t a done deal yet. During dinner, ten minutes ago, I just got word that The Expanse is saved. The show is extraordinary and these guys are unbelievably talented.”

The news quickly went viral and fan sites dedicated to getting the show renewed quickly responded. In fact, #SaveTheExpanse.com went so far as to declare victory:

“We did it!  Thanks to the incredible, historic efforts of the cast, crew and fans of the critically acclaimed sci-fi epic, “The Expanse,” the television show has been resurrected by Amazon Studios and Alcon Entertainment for a fourth season. Just two weeks after being cancelled by Syfy, the massive grassroots effort that followed the news achieved its goal in saving the series, which is now set to appear on Amazon Prime.”

Jeff Bezos recently announced that Amazon Prime will be renewing science fiction series The Expanse. Credit: savetheexpanse.org

Alcon Entertainment co-founders and co-CEOs Andrew Kosove and Broderick Johnson were also very happy with the fact that their show had been picked up by Amazon Prime. As they were quoted as saying by Variety Magazine:

“We couldn’t be more excited that ‘The Expanse’ is going to continue on Amazon Prime. We are deeply grateful that Jeff Bezos, Jen Salke, and their team at Amazon have shown such faith in our show. We also want to thank Laura Lancaster, head of Alcon Television for her tireless efforts. We are fully aware that this wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the staggering outpouring of support from the most creative, hardest working sci-fi fans around the world. From reddit campaigns to airplanes, we say thank you. It worked!”

Bezos also took the opportunity to honor Gerard K. O’Neill, a physicist and well-known proponent of space colonization. Among the many ideas he proposed for creating settlements in space, the most-well known is arguably the concept of the O’Neill Cylinder (aka. O’Neill Colony). This would consist of two counter-rotating cylinders in space that would rotate to provide artificial gravity.

Bezos also acknowledged a debt to O’Neill seminal work, The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space. “Professor O’Neill was very formative for me,” he said. “I read ‘The High Frontier’ in high school. I read it multiple times. And I was already primed. And as soon as I read it, it made sense to me. It seemed very clear that planetary surfaces were not the right place for an expanding civilization inside the solar system.”

Artist’s depiction of a pair of O’Neill cylinders. Credit: Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center

On the subject of O’Neill Cylinders, Bezos indicated that they are a good means for creating accessible space habitats. “For one, they’re not that big,” he explained. “There’s another argument I always make too, [which] is, they’re hard to get to. [If] we build our own colonies, we can do them in near-Earth vicinity, because people will want to come back to Earth. Very few people – for a long time, anyway – are going to want to abandon Earth altogether.”

It seems rather fitting that an entrepreneur who is dedicated to making science fiction a reality has chosen to renew a science fiction show. Clearly, Bezos is a fan, or perhaps he knows that fans of shows like The Expanse are also fans of his commercial space efforts. In either case, fans of the series are happy to know that there will be more seasons to come!

Further Reading: Variety, Space.com, savetheexpanse.org

Here’s What Really Happened to That Camera That Melted During a Rocket Launch

NASA photographers have always understood that taking pictures of space launches is a risky business. No one is more familiar with this than Bill Ingalls, a NASA photographer who has taking pictures for the agency for the past 30 years. Both within the agency and without, his creativity and efforts are well known, as his ability to always know exactly where to set up his cameras to get the perfect shots.

Which naturally begs the question, what happened to the camera featured in the image above? This photograph, which shows one of Ingalls remote cameras thoroughly-melted, has been making the rounds on social media of late. As the accompanying gif (seen below) shows, the camera was not far from the launch pad and was then quickly consumed by the resulting fire.

As Ingalls explained in a recent NASA press release, the destruction of the camera was the result of an unexpected brush fire that was triggered when flames from the launching rocket set some of the nearby grass on fire.

“I had six remotes, two outside the launch pad safety perimeter and four inside,” he said. “Unfortunately, the launch started a grass fire that toasted one of the cameras outside the perimeter.”

The event he was photographing was the launch of the NASA/German Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-on (GRACE-FO) satellite, which took place at Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 22nd, 2018. As part of a partnership between NASA and the German Research Center for Geosciences (GFZ), this satellite is the successor to the original GRACE mission, which began orbiting Earth on March 17th, 2002.

Unfortunately, the launch triggered a brush fire which engulfed the camera and cause its body to melt. Firefighters reported to the scene to put out the fire, who then met Ingalls where he returned to the site. Luckily for Ingalls, and the viewing public, he was able to force open the body and retrieve the memory card, which had not been damaged. As a result, the footage of the fire as it approached the camera was caught.

NASA Photographer Bill Ingalls’s remote camera setup before the NASA/German GRACE-FO launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 22, 2018. Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Oddly enough, this camera was the one posted furthest from the launch pad, about 400 meters (a quarter of a mile) away. The four other cameras that were set up inside the perimeter were undamaged, as was the other remote camera. But before anyone starts thinking that this remote was the unfortunate one, the “toasty” camera, as Ingalls calls it, is likely to put on display at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC.

In the meantime, Ingalls will be traveling to Kazakhstan to photograph the June 3rd landing of the International Space Station’s Expedition 55 crew. He anticipates that that assignment, unlike this last one, will have no surprises!

Further Reading: NASA

Uh oh, the EMDrive Could be Getting Its “Thrust” From Cables and Earth’s Magnetic Field

Ever since NASA announced that they had created a prototype of the controversial Radio Frequency Resonant Cavity Thruster (aka. the EM Drive), any and all reported results have been the subject of controversy. Initially, any reported tests were the stuff of rumors and leaks, the results were treated with understandable skepticism. Even after the paper submitted by the Eagleworks team passed peer review, there have still been unanswered questions.

Hoping to address this, a team of physicists from TU Dresden – known as the SpaceDrive Project – recently conducted an independent test of the EM Drive. Their findings were presented at the 2018 Aeronautics and Astronautics Association of France’s Space Propulsion conference, and were less than encouraging. What they found, in a nutshell, was that much of the EM’s thrust could attributable to outside factors.

The results of their test were reported in a study titled “The SpaceDrive Project – First Results on EMDrive and Mach-Effect Thrusters“, which recently appeared online. The study was led by Martin Tajmar, an engineer from the Institute of Aerospace Engineering at TU Dresden, and included TU Dresden scientists Matthias Kößling, Marcel Weikert and Maxime Monette.

EMDrive Thruster: Cavity (Left), Antenna (Middle) and On Balance (Right). Credit: Martin Tajmar, et al.

To recap, the EM Drive is a concept for an experimental space engine that came to the attention of the space community years ago. It consists of a hollow cone made of copper or other materials that reflects microwaves between opposite walls of the cavity in order to generate thrust. Unfortunately, this drive system is based on principles that violate the Conservation of Momentum law.

This law states that within a system, the amount of momentum remains constant and is neither created nor destroyed, but only changes through the action of forces. Since the EM Drive involves electromagnetic microwave cavities converting electrical energy directly into thrust, it has no reaction mass. It is therefore “impossible”, as far as conventional physics go.

As a result, many scientists have been skeptical about the EM Drive and wanted to see definitive evidence that it works. In response, a team of scientists at NASA’s Eagleworks Laboratories began conducting a test of the propulsion system. The team was led by Harold White, the Advanced Propulsion Team Lead for the NASA Engineering Directorate and the Principal Investigator for NASA’s Eagleworks lab.

Despite a report that was leaked in November of 2016 – titled “Measurement of Impulsive Thrust from a Closed Radio Frequency Cavity in Vacuum“ – the team never presented any official findings. This prompted the team led by Martin Tajmar to conduct their own test, using an engine that was built based on the same specifications as those used by the Eagleworks team.

According to tests conducting by a team from TU Dresden, the EM Drive’s thrust may be the result of interaction with Earth’s magnetic field. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

In short, the TU Dresden team’s prototype consisted of a cone-shaped hollow engine set inside a highly shielded vacuum chamber, which they then fired microwaves at. While they found that the EM Drive did experience thrust, the detectable thrust may not have been coming from the engine itself. Essentially, the thruster exhibited the same amount of force regardless of which direction it was pointing.

This suggested that the thrust was originating from another source, which they believe could be the result of interaction between engine cables and the Earth’s magnetic field. As they conclude in their report:

“First measurement campaigns were carried out with both thruster models reaching thrust/thrust-to– power levels comparable to claimed values. However, we found that e.g. magnetic interaction from twisted-pair cables and amplifiers with the Earth’s magnetic field can be a significant error source for EMDrives. We continue to improve our measurement setup and thruster developments in order to finally assess if any of these concepts is viable and if it can be scaled up.”

In other words, the mystery thrust reported by previous experiments may have been nothing more than an error. If true, it would explain how the “impossible EM Drive” was able to achieve small amounts of measurable thrust when the laws of physics claim it shouldn’t be. However, the team also emphasized that more testing will be needed before the EM Drive can be dismissed or validated with confidence.

What will it take before human beings can travel to the nearest star system within their own lifetimes? Credit: Shigemi Numazawa/ Project Daedalus

Alas, it seems that the promise of being able to travel to the Moon in just four hours, to Mars in 70 days, and to Pluto in 18 months – all without the need for propellant – may have to wait. But rest assured, many other experimental technologies are being tested that could one day allow us to travel within our Solar System (and beyond) in record time. And additional tests will be needed before the EM Drive can be written off as just another pipe dream.

The team also conducted their own test of the Mach-Effect Thruster, another concept that is considered to be unlikely by many scientists. The team reported more favorable results with this concept, though they indicated that more research is needed here as well before anything can be conclusively said. You can learn more about the team’s test results for both engines by reading their report here.

And be sure to check out this video by Scott Manley, who explains the latest test and its results

Further Reading: ResearchGate, Phys.org

Elon Musk Just Shared an Image of the Main Body Tool for Building the BFR. That Thing is F’ing Big!

In September of 2016, Elon Musk announced the latest addition to the SpaceX rocket family. Known then as the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) – now know as the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) – this massive launch vehicle is central to Musk’s vision of sending astronauts and colonists to Mars someday. Since that time, the space community has eagerly waited for any news on how the preparations for this rocket are going.

Musk further inflamed people’s anticipation by recently announcing that the BFR would be ready to conduct orbital flights by as early as 2020. While admittedly an optimistic deadline, Musk indicated that his company was building the presently building the ship. And according to a recent post on Musk’s Instagram account, a key component (the main body tool) for making the BFR interplanetary spaceship has just been completed.

It is important to note, however, that what is being shown here is not actually a part of the rocket. As Ryan Whitwam of Extreme Tech noted, what we are seeing in the post is a tool “that SpaceX will use to fabricate the rocket from carbon fiber composite materials that are lighter than traditional materials. Flexible resin sheets of carbon fiber will be layered on the tool and then heated to cure them. After heating, you’re left with a solid section of rocket fuselage. It’s essentially a carbon fiber jig.”

Nevertheless, from the size of the tool itself, one gets a pretty clear idea of how large the final rocket will be. SpaceX chose to illustrate the scale of the tool by placing a Tesla next to it for scale. For some additional perspective, consider the cherry Tesla Roadster (driven by Starman) SpaceX launched with the Falcon Heavy‘s maiden flight.

Whereas the payload capsule was barely large enough to house it, this car looks like it could fit inside any rocket turned out by this tool easily, and with plenty of room to spare. And while cars are not exactly the BFR’s intended payload, it is good to know that it will be no slouch in that department!

When completed, the BFR will be the largest and most powerful rocket in the SpaceX rocket family. According to the company’s own specifications, it will measure 106 meters (348 ft) in height and 9 meters (30 ft) in diameter and will be able to deliver a payload of 150,000 kg (330,000 lb) to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) – almost two and a half times the payload of the Falcon Heavy (63,800 kg; 140,660 lb).

And as Musk indicated during an interview with Jonathon Nolan at the 2018 South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, it will even outpace the rockets that won the Space Race for the US:

“This a very big booster and ship. The liftoff thrust of this would be about twice that of a Saturn V (the rockets that sent the Apollo astronauts to the Moon). So it’s capable of doing 150 metric tons to orbit and be fully reusable. So the expendable payload is about double that number.”

Once completed, Musk hopes to see the BFR performing service missions to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), the International Space Station, to the Moon, and – of course – to Mars. In addition to sending colonists there as early as the next decade, Musk has also expressed interest in using the BFR to conduct space tourism – flying passengers in luxury accommodations to the Red Planet and back.

In the end, it is clear that Musk and the company he founded for the purpose of reigniting space exploration are determined to make all of this happen. In the coming years, it will be interesting to see how far and how fast they progress.

Further Reading: Instagram, SpaceX, Extreme Tech

Launching Rockets from Balloons is About to be a Thing, But We Need a Better Name than “Rockoons”

One of the technological hurdles of our age is to get people and equipment into space more cheaply. SpaceX gets a lot of the headlines around that, with their reusable rockets. And so does Blue Origin, to some degree. Now a small start-up affiliated with Purdue University is tackling the problem and making some headway.

The company is called Leo Aerospace LLC and they’re using balloons to lower the cost of putting micro-satellites into orbit, rather than reusable rockets. The balloons will be reusable, but the rockets won’t.

Leo Aerospace plans to revive a decades-old method of putting satellites into space. They’re using hot air balloons to lift the rocket and its micro-satellite payload 18 km (11 miles) above Earth. At that altitude, there’s 95% less atmosphere. This means much less drag on the rocket, which translates into smaller rockets with less fuel. This is an intriguing idea, if not for the unfortunate name.

The rockoons will be used to launch rockets into sub-orbital and orbital flights. Sub-orbitals are often used by researchers because it gives them access to zero gravity and to vacuum, both of which are necessary for some experiments. According to Leo Aerospace, there’s something revolutionary about their plans.

“We’re targeting the microsatellites by saying, ‘You don’t have to ride-share with anyone. We can guarantee you will be our only payload and we will be focused on you.’” – Drew Sherman, Leo Aerospace’s Head of Vehicle Development.

They intend on targeting micro-satellite developers. Micro-satellites are often hitch-hikers on larger payloads, which basically means they’re second-class customers. They have to wait until there’s room for their micro-satellite on a traditional rocket carrying a larger payload. This can mean long delays of several months, and that micro-satellite developers have to compromise when it comes to the orbits they can obtain. It can also make micro-satellite missions difficult to plan and execute efficiently and economically. Micro-satellites are becoming more and more capable, so having a launch system tailor-made for them could indeed be revolutionary.

“We’re targeting the microsatellites by saying, ‘You don’t have to ride-share with anyone. We can guarantee you will be our only payload and we will be focused on you,’” said Drew Sherman, Leo Aerospace’s head of vehicle development. “‘We will work with you exclusively to get you into orbit. You won’t have to worry about other payloads or getting dropped off in the wrong spot.’”

The flexibility of the rockoon system that Leo Aerospace is developing will be intriguing for micro-satellites. Rockoons will give micro-satellites the flexibility they need to operate efficiently. The launch can be scheduled and adapted to the needs of the individual satellite. “Our goal is to give people access to space. The only way to do that right now is to help people get their satellite into orbit. That’s where we want to leave our mark,” said Abishek Murali, Head of Mission Engineering at Leo Aerospace.

“Our goal is to give people access to space.” – Abishek Murali, Head of Mission Engineering at Leo Aerospace

The rockoon itself is a hybrid of a balloon and a rocket. The hybrid design takes advantage of physics by using the balloon to float the rocket 18 km high before launching the rocket. The rockoon has Leo Aerospace’s own patent-pending technology to control the pitch and angle of the launch, allowing for precision launches.

Rockoons were first used by the US Air Force back in the 1950s. But this next generation of rockoons, coupled with modern micro-satellites, will be much more capable than the 1950s technology.

Leo Aerospace LLC was started by five then-Purdue University students as a club and then turned into a business. The founders are, from left, Mike Hepfer, head of product development; Drew Sherman, head of vehicle development; Abishek Murali, head of mission engineering; Dane Rudy; chief executive officer; and Bryce Prior, head of operations and strategy. Image: Leo Aerospace.

Currently, Leo Aerospace is in the development and funding phase. They’ve obtained some funding from the National Science Foundation, and from a venture capital firm. They have about half of the $250,000 they need. They plan to conduct their first sub-orbital flight in 2020, and to launch their first micro-satellite into orbit in 2022. They intend to use existing approved launch sites.

Leo Aerospace was founded by five then-students at Purdue University. Leo started as a club, but the former students have turned it into a business. And that business seems to have a bright future. They conducted a customer discovery and market validation study and found a large demand for a better way to launch micro-satellites.

“We want to be part of the space market,” Murali said. “People are interested in space and creating technologies that not only can operate in space but also help people back on Earth. What we’re trying to do is help them get there.”

But they still need a better name than “rockoons.”